Can We Put Adolescence to Rest? Part Two

Last week, I blogged Part One of this two part blog post. I suggested that a strange phenomenon is happening in the U.S. and around the world in Asia and Europe as well. It is the prolonging of adolescence and the delay of adulthood in young people. As I mentioned, several university deans have said to me: 26 is the new 18. Parents, teachers, coaches, and youth pastors have failed to prepare them for the world they will enter as adults. They don’t want to grow up.

So what is a society to do with these people? “The real heavy lifting may have to happen on the level of the culture itself,” suggest reporters Marc Schultz and Deirdre Van Dyke. “There was a time when people looked forward to taking on the mantle of adulthood. That time is past. Now our culture trains young people to fear it. Matt Swann, a 27-year-old who plans to go back to school said, ‘I don’t ever want a lawn. I don’t ever want to drive two hours to work. I do not want to be a parent. I mean, why would I? There’s so much fun to be had while you’re young.’”

How does this compare to life one hundred years ago? First of all, the term “adolescence” had just been invented and published by psychologist G. Stanley Hall in 1904. It is taken from the Latin root, “adolescere” meaning “to grow up.” Psychologist, Erik Erikson, characterized adolescence as a period of exploration and experimentation, a time when kids try on different roles, a period of coming to terms with one’s personal identity. Obviously, there’s no problem with experimenting. We all needed time to do that. But there is a difference between doing it at ages 16 to 22 and doing it at ages 28 to 35. And, there is a difference between experimenting and floundering. Prior to the origin of the term adolescence, a person was either a child or an adult. Through history, children were trained in rites of passage preparing them for adulthood, and they experienced rituals that clearly marked their entrance into adulthood. Professor Chap Clark writes, “As society has changed and become more and more relative, it took away markers defining young people’s movement from one developmental stage to another.” Eventually, we needed a term for this stage — and “adolescence” was born.

In October 2008, BusinessWeek published an article by former House Speaker, Newt Gingrich, declaring war on adolescence. He suggests it’s time to put an end to it. As a social institution, it’s been a failure. The proof is all around us. It’s time to move on. “Returning to an earlier, more successful model of children rapidly assuming roles and responsibilities of adults would yield enormous benefit to society,” Gingrich argues. “Prior to the 19th century, its fair to say adolescence did not exist. Instead, there was virtually universal acceptance that puberty marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. Whether with the Bar Mitzvah and Bat Mitzvah ceremony of the Jewish faith, confirmation in the Catholic Church or any hundreds of rites of passage in societies around the planet, it was understood you were either a child or a young adult.” This was clearly true in the U.S. during the Revolutionary War. Benjamin Franklin finished school in Boston at 13, was apprenticed to his brother a printer and publisher, and moved immediately into adulthood. John Quincy Adams attended Leiden University at 13, and at 16 he was secretary to the U.S. delegation during the negotiations with Britain that ended the Revolution. Daniel Boone got his first rifle at 12, was an expert hunter at 13, and at 15 made a yearlong trek through the wilderness.

No doubt, life expectancies were shorter back then, but society proved that a young person could be challenged and rise to that challenge if empowered to do so. Adolescence was invented in the late 19th century to enable middle class families to keep their children out of sweatshops. But it has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that’s produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history. It’s time to change this — to shift to serious work, learning and responsibility at age 13 instead of 30. In other words, replace adolescence with young adulthood. This first means we must change the way we lead them as adults. We must lead the boys into manhood and the girls into womanhood.

We must find a way to respond to this challenge. It won’t go away if we fail. We, the adults in America, must help young people see adolescence as a “tollbooth” where they pay a price and progress through it, instead of a roadblock.

I welcome your thoughts.


Can We Put Adolescence to Rest? Part Two